American lawmakers have taken an incrementalist, state-by-state approach to marijuana legalization with occasional pushback from the federal government. Canada is about to take the exact opposite approach. Legislators will officially announce plans to pass a full legalization bill through Parliament on April 10. Marijuana will be legal in Canada, by July 2018.
Legalization doesn’t mean carte blanche for flannel-clad stoners. In order to purchase marijuana, Canadians will have to be over 18 years old and each home will only be allowed to grow four plants. Legislators have suggested that these rules, along with blanket decriminalization, will keep the drug out of the hands of kids. But will it? Recent research regarding accidental ingestion suggest otherwise.
“You can anticipate it,” says Dr. Genie Roosevelt, who predicts that there will be a spike in Canadian incidents of accidental cannabis ingestion. “Because people should be treating it like a medication and they are not”
Roosevelt’s 2014 study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine rounded up National Poison Control data and found that, between 2005 and 2011, there were 985 “unintentional marijuana exposures” reported in American children nine and under. Of those incidents, 396 occurred in decriminalized states, which researchers considered states with some form of legalized cannabis consumption prior to 2005. Those states experienced Poison Control call increase of about 30 percent per year. States without legalized weed saw no change. There was, however, an 11 percent increase in states where weed had some form of legalization between 2005 and 2011.
More recently, Roosevelt published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics confirming the trend. Researchers found a marked increase in Colorado pot-related accidental exposures in the two years after recreational cannabis legalization. But here’s the thing: In nearly half of those cases, poor supervision or storage was to blame. And in nine percent of the cases, child proof containers were completely absent. Edibles accounted for most of these exposures.
These trends also hold beyond Colorado. The Washington Poison Center continues to report yearly increases in accidental cannabis exposure in children. The Oregon Poison Center reports similar findings, with children’s exposure nearly doubling, yearly, since 2014. In many cases, poorly stored and managed edibles seem to be the culprits.
“We saw in the Poison Center data, that when parents were asked if it was safely stored, the parents would say ‘No. We took it out of the child protective packaging and left it right out in front of the kid.’”
And no wonder the kids ate the stuff. Most of it was edibles.
“The real take-home message from the studies we’ve done is that kids are going to get into this stuff,” says Roosevelt. “So parents really need to treat their marijuana products just like they treat the grandfather’s blood pressure medication. These products need to be stored safely away from where children can get to them.”
She adds that this is particularly important for products that resemble brownies, cookie, and candy.
Asked if any of this data, or the likely spike of pot-exposure in Canadian children, will deter legalization efforts, Dr. Roosevelt was skeptical. “I feel like marijuana is kind of blasé in the states,” she says. “My sense is that more states will continue to legalize marijuana. I’m not sure that the kid experience will impact anyone’s decision.”
In the end, Dr. Roosevelt hopes states will take a cue from Colorado. “The legalization is the easy part,” she says. “The hard part is pulling it off and reducing the impact.”
Children who get their hands on pot tend to display symptoms correlated to the amount of marijuana ingested. The most common symptoms are sleepiness, changes in mood or loss of balance. In severe circumstances, breathing may become dangerously slow, which occasionally leads to stays in intensive care units. Because pot is most often consumed in edibles, these symptoms are often slow to develop. Research suggests many — if not most — accidental ingestions are dealt with at home.
To date, no children have died from the effects of marijuana ingestion in states where marijuana has been legalized. There is, however, very little information available on long term side effects of pot exposure. Canada’s legal shift may facilitate that research.